Now, I know this kind of approach doesn't work for every writer, but it sure helps me! if you are one of those lucky creatures who can sit down at the keyboard with a fuzzy story idea and watch it flow from there, I offer you my congratulations.
I find I am totally constipated (story-wise, of course) until I dig deep and unearth some central things about my characters and my story. Sometimes I don't have to get very far under the surface; other times I seem to be heading for China before the words flow.
These are my questions for the section of the Hero's Journey that Christopher Vogler calls "The Ordinary World". Some of the questions are his, but many are mine.
1. What is the hero's ordinary world?
2. What problems/conflicts are already there dormant?
3. Is there anything foreshadowed from the coming conflict here?
- Vogler says that there should be hints. little shadows of the coming conflict - perhaps seeing how the hero's flaw is a problem.
4. What dramatic questions are raised about the hero?
- The famous story question!
- Will Indiana Jones get the treasure?
- Will Romeo and Juliet have their happy ever after?
- Will Shrek be able to get all the fairy tale animals out of his swamp and live in peace again?
- The story question is what keeps readers turning pages. They want to know the answer.
- According to Jack Bickham, the quicker you ask the story question the better. It's the central question of the story, the one you have to answer at the end of the book for it to be a satisfying read.
5. What lessons does he/she need to learn?
- Every hero needs to learn something. None of us are perfect.
- Shrek needs to learn to stop shutting the world out because he is doesn't want any more rejection. He needs to learn how to interact with other people and have relationships. It's not going to be easy. Relationships are hard for everyone.
- The struggles your hero faces through out the story should help him/her grow. They may gather experience by learning new skills or by their mistakes, but by the end of the story they will not be the same as they were at the beginning.
- In fact, this was why I ditched my first-ever novel attempt. Halfway through the second draft I realised that the struggles I was putting my characters through didn't relate to their biggest fears/inner conflict/lessons as well as they could. If you want an emotional story, you need to hit the characters in their weak spots. Tough for them, but great for the reader as we see them stumble along, being stretched and earning their happy ever after.
- This was a 'light-bulb' moment for me. Find out what your character's weakness is, what their biggest fear is, and make them face it.
6. What are the hero's Inner and Outer conflicts?
- I love Debra Dixon's book, "GMC: Goal, Motivation and Conflict". I can't begin a story without mapping this out. So, I thought I would include this in my little questionnaire.
- Goal: what does your character want? Motivation: why do they want it? Conflict: what's stopping them getting it?
- Characters often have inner (emotional/intagible) goals and outer (tanglible) goals.
- Shrek's outer get rid of the fairy-tale creatures squatting in his swamp, because he wants to be left in peace to live on his own, but before he can get the deed to the land, he has to go and rescue a princess for Lord Farquad. He can do something tangible about this problem.
- Shrek's inner goal is to protect himself from further rejection, because he has been hurt in the past when people didn't look beyond his appearance, but he's going to have to interact with other beings and forge relationships as he goes on his quest.
7. What does our first meeting with the hero say about her?
- Vogler says that when we first meet a hero, the hero should be doing something typically 'them'. This gives us clues to their personality and anchors them in their ordinary world straight away.
- Shrek is farting in a mud bath the first time we meet him. That sums him up pretty well, doesn't it?
- In 'French Kiss', Kate is panicking about flying. Later on in the film she is told she is "too afraid to live". Our first meeting with her sums up where she is in her emotional 'ordinary world' rather well.
8. What universal goal does your hero have?
- Readers identify with characters that want something they can understand.
- Does your hero want success, a happy family life, power, love, stability...
- The list is endless, but it doesn't hurt to make sure that your central character is someone who the reader can relate to quickly. After all, they're going to be riding on that character's coat tails for most of the story.
- The reader doesn't necessarily have to like the character, or even want the same things themselves, but they have to understand their goals.
9. What is your hero's tragic flaw?
10. What does the hero stand to lose/gain?
11. What backstory needs to come out?
12. What is the theme of the story?
Theme is such a huge subject I could blog about it for a month. Maybe I will one day. if you want a good lesson in theme watch an episode of "Grey's Anatomy" and listen to the voice over at the beginning of the episode. Then watch the rest with that in mind and see how it is played out in the character's lives and even the medical situations that arise.